Japanese Superstitions

Last Wednesday, my beloved cat, Achilles died. And as a sort of tribute to him I took I did a bit of research into the few Japanese superstitions about death.


The Deadly “4”

The first thing I found while researching was that the number 4 (四) in Japanese and death (死) are both pronounced “shi”, because of the verbal similarities, the number 4 is considered bad luck, it’s taken so seriously that even in some building’s, the elevator’s don’t list the 4th floor as the 4th floor, it just skips it and it becomes the 5th floor. Presenting someone with 4 gifts also is very offensive as the recipient would take it as you mean for them to die.


also the number 9 (九) is unlucky because it’s pronounced the same as pain (苦) and also the number 13, thanks to Westernized culture.

Chopsticks (箸)

Anything thing that you do that is associated with funerals is considered unlucky. A mistake that people make is sticking their chopsticks straight into a bowl of rice, this would be a very easy mistake to make, and the reason for it being unlucky is because a bowl of rice with chopsticks sticking out of it is placed on an alter at funerals. Also passing food to other people chopstick to chopstick is unlucky because at funerals after the body is done cremating the guests stand around the ashes and pick out the bones with chopsticks and pass them along to everyone, person to person, chopsticks to chopsticks.

Please Don’t Feed the Animals

Basically everywhere, black cat’s are deemed unlucky, because years ago when someone was dead or dying a cat would be nearby, this is just because cat’s love heat, and when a person is dying, they might have a fever, or a blanket resulting in the body being nice and toasty for them to lie on, and basically the color black being associated with death resulted in black cat’s being the most feared.



In Japan, badgers are also deemed unlucky because apparently they wear masks to hide their eyes, they do this because they’re believed to be mischievous, evil and trouble-maker’s.

Other rules to follow

Rule: When a funeral car passes, hide your thumb

Reason: Thumb in Japanese is 親指, which literally translates to “parent finger”,  so hiding your thumb is a way of protecting your parents

Rule: Don’t whistle at night or a snake will come and get you

Reason: The best reason I could find was to just keep kids quiet at night.

Rule: Don’t cut your nails at night because it will cause death, some different versions are, your parents will die, you will die with parents, basically, death.

Reason: Again, the best reason I could find was, parents didn’t want their children handling sharp objects in the dark.

I know there are many more Japanese superstitions, so if you know of the many more that I didn’t include in this post, please leave it as a comment. If you liked it, hated it, or really don’t care I’d love to hear from you, and If you really do like it please share it.



Filed under Beliefs, Culture

21 responses to “Japanese Superstitions

  1. Kita-makura – sleeping with your head pointed to the north is a no-no. Corpses are laid out that way during the wake..!

  2. After the summer Bon festivals (aug 15thish) and especially during them, swimming in the ocean or sea is usually taboo because the dead will drag you down with them…also seemed the case in Taiwan…..

    ….never makes for any less crowds at surfspots though 😦

  3. Wow, I didn’t know they took the ‘number 4 superstition’ so seriously… o_o

    • headingforjapan

      Well, I don’t know how seriously these superstitions are taken, In the Western World different people take different superstitions seriously and some not, It just depends on the person.

  4. Great post, great superstitions. I wonder if they take them anymore seriously than walking under a ladder, for example?

    • headingforjapan

      Thanks for the compliment, and I think not walking under a ladder is just common sense 😛

      • You’re absolutely right. Most Western superstitions are though, like breaking a mirror for instance. I mean, why would you purposely do that anyway. Forget seven years, more like a broken arm..

  5. a knew about a few of these but not all of them, great list.

  6. Heh, haven’t heard all of those – some of them are pretty funny.

    The biggest superstition I found about lately was the whole yakudoshi thing, where everyone is supposed to have really bad luck for a year (and to a lesser extent the preceeding and following year) at certain times based on the Chinese zodiac. I wrote about it here:


  7. Ashley

    I believe the reason for the nail-cutting superstition is that you shouldn’t turn a blade (even a small one as on a nail-clipper) towards yourself at night because it brings demons closer to you. Not sure if there’s anything else behind that though as I haven’t finished translating the article.

  8. Flaffer

    I thought the chopsticks up in rice represent the incense being burned at the gravesite/shrine, which is an unlucky thing to do. I have not heard of rice being setup related to a dead person.

    Also why burning incense is considered to be taboo as well.

    • headingforjapan

      You might be correct, but I found these two websites, which support my reason for the chopsticks superstitions


      • Flaffer

        Maybe its a double whammy. I have seen food being laid out at grave sites a lot but never rice with chopsticks sticking straight up.

        Learn something new everyday!

    • Standing chopsticks up in rice is referred to as 仏箸 (Hotoke-bashi, chopsticks for the dead), which cements the connection with the dead part.

      Searching in Japanese for taboos with chopsticks, I haven’t found one listing with incense in it, and searching for incense (香料) and hotoke-bashi doesn’t bring up anything either. The origins are rather vague, but it originally comes from rice I believe.

      • Flaffer

        I found the same when searching around. I do not remember where I heard it before but if you watch, you will see the incense burners with incense stuck into sand with the incense sticking straight up.

        Guess it was an urban legend, Tokyo-style!

      • Yeah I know what you’re referring to with the incense at graves, and I’ve never seen rice at a grave either… although I have seen people setting beers and other gifts of food as offerings in front of graves, as well as Buddha statues. (For those that don’t know, Japanese believe that when you die you become a ‘god’ – you see people with posthumous Buddhist names and such)

        I see it as possible that “back in the day” people stuck rice out there before they had beer cans, etc. This is something I ran across with looking up yakudoshi as well… Japanese didn’t always keep impeccable track records of where their beliefs and superstitions come from, which makes them hard to pin down.

      • Athios

        The incense reference may be a Chinese origin. I used to get scolded for doing that. : P

  9. Bob

    A few of these superstitions are also believed in India. It’s crazy how things travel.

  10. kathleen

    I was always told you should never blow out the flames of the senko (incense) sticks when you light them. it had to be waved around to put out the flame. Also the candle at the Butsudan (altar) shouldn’t be blown out also. My parents were firm believers of not sleeping in the direction of the dead and not sleeping directly facing a doorway or the spirits will come and take you away.

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